Saturday, June 15, 2013

Born on a Mountaintop -- Bob Thompson

You can see the full title of this book on the cover to the left.  It's an entertaining biography of Davy Crockett, but it's also a road trip, a story about the power of myth and Walt Disney, and a lot more.  

One of the amazing things about Born on a Mountaintop is the number of people who were influenced by the Walt Disney version of Crockett's story to devote a big part of their lives to research into Crockett's life and to preserving his memory.  Thompson is just one of them, and in his case it's a generational thing.  His young daughter became instantly enchanted when she heard the famous song from which the book draws its title.  And is there anybody around my age who can't sing the rest of the line that follows the title?  And more besides?  In addition to the song, at least in the daughter's case, there's even a Nic Cage connection.  Who would have guessed?

What did I learn from the book?  Here are two things I'll remember.  One, Crockett preferred to be called David.  And two, he was quite likely the first author ever to go on a promotional tour for his book. Now we know who's to blame.

Thompson wants to try to separate the truth about Crockett from the myths, and he spends a year "walking where Davy walked," visiting all the places where Crockett lived or passed some time.  In every one of them there's a local historian who knows all the stories, some of which might even be true.  One conclusion that Thompson reaches, however, is that there's no way to be sure, no way to separate the myth from the reality in every case or even in most cases.  Thompson does an admirable job of presenting the stories and the evidence supporting or debunking them, and he does it with skill and in an engaging writing style that makes reading the book a lot of fun.

The most controversial part of Crockett's life is his death, and Thompson spends a lot of time discussing how Crockett might have met his end at the Alamo.  He does a great job of it, too, though again, nobody knows what really happened and never will.

Three more things I learned.  If I knew, I'd forgotten that Tom Blackburn, a western writer whose name I've seen on many books but never read, wrote the screenplay for the Disney series.  Also, Blackburn wrote the lyrics for the famous song.  I hope he had a piece of the action.  Finally, Fess Parker got the role of Crockett because of his bit part in Them.

I liked this book a lot, and it's highly recommended for anybody who's curious about Crockett, about the Alamo, or about how a three-hour TV series can change the world.  

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